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This Royals’ roster is a tale of two age groups

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Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The idea of a rebuilding club is (hopefully) to find and play a roster of young guys, creating future value and assets. For a rebuilding team, present value is useless. How good a player will be on a team that is going to lose 100 games is mostly irrelevant if you consider that player to have more future value than present value - is he is young and controlled enough that he’ll be around for several years to come? I’ve always said that the objective for a rebuilding team is to exchange as much present value for future value.

*You’ve really gotta feel for Mike Trout who has been both the present and future value king for years but his teams have only made the playoffs once

What if we could somehow look at the age distribution of future value? Well, first we’d have to define future value. There are a few different way to think about that. It could be surplus value, or the value a player generates above the cost of the player. That’s a little tricky though because you would need every player’s salary now and into the future, plus their projected future performance. It’s not impossible to do but it would require making a lot of guesses and assumptions (arbitration raises, contract length, etc.). The latter part is readily available, as over at FanGraphs we have ZiPS projections all the way out to 2022.

So let’s just live off that. So I grabbed those projections, took every players current age, and then binned them by age.

So what you see above is the distribution by age for every player of that ages 2022 ZiPS projection (I cutoff anyone projected for zero or negative WAR). For example, players that are currently in their age-25 season project for 173.2 WAR in 2022. Players in their age-27 season project for 160.2 WAR in 2022. So to be clear, this isn’t the age they will be in 2022, but the age they currently are.

Or another way to look at it, let’s take the average of same data above since there are obviously more players aged 25 and 26 than there are aged 20 or 21 in the majors (which would essentially exclude all college players taken recently).

The red line is the three-year smoothed averaged and the trend is clear - the younger you are, the better you project towards the future. I mean, that’s obvious right? But the idea here isn’t to break any new ground, it’s to visualize what we already know.

These projections were created prior to the 2020 season, so any player who has raised their baseline performance so far this year -like Fernando Tatis Jr, Mike Yastrzemski, or Kyle Lewis - will be underrated a bit. But I’d argue most of these breakout guys, guys who have raised their future projection significantly (save for Yastrzemski), are probably under 25-years old or so.

So why am I writing about this? Well, the Royals are a rebuilding club. Even if Dayton Moore hasn’t explicitly come out and said it really, after back-to-back 100 loss seasons you are by default a rebuilding team. So a rebuilding team you would hope has more future value than present value. I created that distribution graph to try to figure out where the most future value lies. It’s objectively at age 25 by the sum of projected WAR but there is some grey area there because it’s subjectively really between probably age 25-27.

Let’s go with the middle there and use 26 as the age demarcation. Let’s bucket every team by their hitters and pitchers, and then by players 26-and-under/over.

Well, the Royals appear to be in dead last when it comes to performance this year for hitters 26-and-under but they are in the top ten when it comes to performance by players 27-and-older. This could be interpreted as the Royals don’t have much future value when it comes to hitters currently on their roster but they do have a decent amount of present value. Royals hitters 26-and-under are hitting 45% below league average but those over 26 are hitting 9% above league average.

On an absolute basis, Royals pitchers in the 27+ age group have been better than those under 27 but on a relative basis, the younger group has been slightly “better” (I put better in quotations because they’ve been worth zero WAR). The younger group has had a FIP 21% worse than league average, whereas the older group has only had a FIP 5% worse than league average.

Now for the final part, let’s combine everybody

Look, on the one hand, the Royals have had the worst “young” group in the Majors so far, headlined by how poor of a start Nicky Lopez (-0.2 WAR), Adalberto Mondesi (-0.3), and Franchy Cordero (-0.3) have gotten off to, further complicated by the no one in the group being worth more than 0.1 WAR (Brett Phillips and Meibrys Viloria). This isn’t good for future value arguments because no one here has made the case of “I am for sure a building block”. Matthew Lamar wrote earlier this week that it’s probably time to lower expectations for Mondesi. Additionally, in what is coming close to a full season of play now for his career (130 games and 490 plate appearances) Nicky Lopez has accrued -0.4 WAR and hit for a 56 wRC+.

The young pitching side has mostly been made up of Brad Keller (0.6 WAR) and Josh Staumont (0.3 WAR). Keller is 24, so he has a few years until he shifts into the present value bucket and he’s surely a league-average-type pitcher you can count on going forward. I’m a little more skeptical on Staumont (who is 26) given reliever attrition and volatility, how bad his numbers looked in the minors, the small sample size of 12 innings so far, and his 15% walk rate. I’m honestly not sure how good or bad he’ll be by 2022 but relievers should probably always live in a mixed bucket of present and future value.

Half of prized group of pitching prospect (Brady Singer and Kris Bubic) have gotten off to a rough-ish start to their combined careers (52.1 IP, 5.50 ERA, 5.51 FIP, 122 ERA-, 127 FIP-, and 0.0 WAR). Still, it’s too soon to write them off and for now they should be considered future assets.

On the other hand though, the Royals do have a good bit of present value. Whit Merrifield continues to be an above average player (but the clock on his value is ticking as he is now 31), Jorge Soler (28) for the most part has continued his breakout (124 wRC+ and 0.7 WAR) and remained uninjured, and Hunter Dozier (28) has hit well since his return (148 wRC+ and 0.5 WAR).

Pitching-wise, Danny Duffy (31) has done really well after back-to-back average to below-average seasons. He is definitely a present value rather than a future value guy given his age and contract. Scott Barlow (27) has been arguably the Royals best reliever this year, and while his stats might not match the hype (92 FIP- and 0.1 WAR), Trevor Rosenthal has garnered some strong trade interest as an obvious trade candidate for the Royals.

Now of course the Royals aren’t going to trade all of this present value, even if ideally that is what they should be doing. On our most recent podcast, I put the over/under of trades at the deadline for the Royals at 1.5 and everyone took the under, so I think we’d be surprised at two trades let alone four or five.

But this is all kind of the point: the Royals have a roster where present value is greater than future value as it stands (this is agnostic of the farm system). A team who is actually committed to rebuilding should be swapping as much of that present value for future value as they can. Rosenthal, Soler, Merrifield, and others (such as Greg Holland) make perfect trade candidates for the future purposes of the Royals.

It remains to be seen what will be done at the deadline, but I’d argue given the current state of the roster, there is a lot to be changed if the purpose is to create future value.